The 2022 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) was a hybrid online and in-person event this year after going virtual in 2020 and 2021. Held May 16-19 at various locations in Tampa, Fla., it attracted a record-breaking 16,000 attendees from 100 countries and 585 exhibitors at the Tampa Convention Center and a SOFIC Campus that spanned several city blocks.

Hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational association, SOFIC connects special operations forces and industry partners to collaborate on challenges, initiatives and ways to use cutting-edge capabilities. This year’s agenda featured speakers from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and industry who talked challenges, trends, and current and expected capability gaps.

A highlight of the event was the Capabilities Demonstration, a mock rescue involving members from about 75 special ops forces who worked to “rescue” John Bennett, chief of staff to Tampa’s mayor. “There’s no other demo like this in the world that involves the international special ops community,” Bennett said.

 AI was a hot topic at SOFIC

AI was a common thread throughout the event. For instance, AI technologies that fly autonomously in contested air spaces was a hot topic that Defense Department Under Secretary for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu said was on her wish list.

“I’m interested in pushing technology toward developing a single sensor that has the ability to listen, ability to jam, ability to communicate, ability to inject — all in one,” Shyu said.

SOCOM Acquisition Executive James Smith touted AI’s potential to merge space-based systems, ground sensors and data into a single intelligence product. He pointed to SOCOM work to develop a DevSecOps environment for its Mission Command System and noted that command leaders want to invest in additional software development.

SOCOM Chief Data Officer Thomas Kenney echoed the call to use AI, but in the context of improving data management and digital transformation for the betterment of the command. “If we really want to get good at AI, we need to build muscles of memory that allow us to understand how to find that data, assess the quality of data and message data into a format we need and then deploy that data in a model,” Kenney said.

The key, he added, is augmenting human capabilities with AI, not replacing workers with technology. “Humans are absolutely more important than hardware, but humans can be augmented and enhanced with hardware,” Kenney said. “Hardware and humans coming together can really enable us to do great things.”

SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke also highlighted the ways that technology can support warfighters, calling data and technological innovation critical to combatting cyber threats.

“Data will play a significant role in modernization efforts,” Clarke said. “Our data is so important that many of the components are also hiring data officers. … But is our CDO a chief data officer or a chief digital officer? We still need to suss that out.”

New Requirements in Special Ops

Several SOFIC speakers addressed future goals and needs for special operations forces. For example, Col. Joseph Blanton, SOCOM program executive officer for SOF support activity, said that elite commandos need to learn to operate in contested environments without lines of support, such as logistical systems and radio waves that link equipment to headquarters. The question is how to get supplies to teams in need.

This is called the “untethered logistics concept,” Blanton said, and his office created a new program manager position to help study options. “We’re definitely interested in hearing from industry what is in the realm of the possible,” he said.

David Breede, program executive officer for special reconnaissance, said SOCOM logistics is looking at what current capabilities are and how they compare to what they expect to need in the future – and how to close gaps.

For instance, in the past 20 years, the radio frequency environment has not been hotly contested, he said. “We know that environment will be more contested, more congested and being able to operate without that RF environment is a goal,” he said, adding that the sensors his office develops will be in a contested environment. “It’s a tough problem. It’s hard. It’s not something we can do right now.”

Another challenge lies in environmental changes as the military shifts its focus to the water-heavy Indo-Pacific region – especially China – after 20 years in arid Afghanistan and Iraq, said Lisa Sanders, SOCOM’s science and technology director. One reason why this is difficult is that precision navigation and timing can be harder in water environments like the ocean. That’s because in a contested Global Positioning System environment, alternatives are necessary, but most alternatives are based on reading geographical features.

“The ocean looks the same. So that’s a challenge in that domain,” Sanders said.

Of course, teams will also perform missions on land, likely often in large cities, she added, where using sensor and communications can be complicated. “It’s not that easy to see things and communicate,” Sanders said. “There is a lot of jamming, intentional and unintentional.”

Big emphasis on small business Government Contractors

Under Secretary Shyu put the spotlight on small businesses’ role in providing innovation to SOCOM. Although the command has SOFWERX, a platform that supports collaboration, prototyping and research between SOCOM and industry, labs, academia and other government entities, she worries about small businesses running out of capital after using up funding from the Small Business Innovation Research Program.

To help small GovCons stay in business, Shyu said she’s creating the position of strategic capital director. The person in that role will be responsible for finding funding for small businesses.